Baltimore residents demand tougher laws on police officers at hearing

Baltimore City delegation holds hearing on possible police reforms.

With the next General Assembly starting in January, more than 100 community members demanded Saturday that state lawmakers toughen laws holding police officers more accountable for misconduct.

During a public hearing on Saturday at the University of Baltimore, residents urged members of Baltimore City's House delegation to revise Maryland's law enforcement Bill of Rights, which some say is too protective of officers, and to give more power to the city's police civilian review board so it has a greater role in disciplining officers.

Others suggestions included eliminating the $200,000 cap on payouts in most lawsuits when residents sue officers for misconduct allegations.

"Litigation in some ways is the only way to weed out bad officers," attorney Dwight Pettit, who has sued dozens of officers in 40 years, told the panel of lawmakers. "That $200,000 limit isn't enough incentive to make them stop the behavior."

The three-hour hearing came two months after a Baltimore Sun investigation showed that residents have suffered broken bones and battered faces during arrests, and the city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits alleging police brutality and other misconduct since 2011. Nearly all of the victims in incidents that sparked those lawsuits were cleared of criminal charges.

The Sun also found that some Baltimore officers were involved in multiple lawsuits, and there were significant gaps in the system used to monitor misconduct in the Police Department. As a result, city and police officials acknowledge, many residents have come to distrust police and crime-fighting efforts have been hampered. Since The Sun investigation, police Commissioner Anthony Batts announced that he requested federal help to reform the department.

Del. Jill P. Carter, chair of the Criminal Law & Justice Committee, told the crowd that lawmakers "are looking for ideas to craft potential legislation" before they convene in January.

Del. Curt Anderson, chair of the Baltimore City delegation, said he needed to hear ideas in order to gain support from Maryland's other lawmakers.

In one part of the meeting, lawmakers asked several notable community members for suggestions.

Marvin L. "Doc" Cheathan Sr., past president of the local NAACP branch, said a group is working on potential legislation to expand the powers of the police review board. The group would like funding to hire workers to probe police misconduct, he said.

"We can't have Internal Affairs [detectives] being the only ones doing the investigations," he said.

Another part of the meeting focused on people sharing stories of bad interactions with officers. Family members of a man killed by officers in 2013 discussed the anguish of the death.

Carter then called on three high-ranking members of the Baltimore Police Department to answer questions. She asked why police object to changing the Bill of Rights.

"We can't discuss the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights," Col. Garnell Green replied.

The crowd heckled, with one person shouting: "You sound like a politician."

For the next hour, residents then bombarded the police officials with questions about policies and procedures.

While Baltimore residents want reforms, changes might be hard to sell to other police leaders across Maryland.

Delegate Joseph F. Vallario Jr., from Prince George's and Calvert counties, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, listened to the discussion from the back of the room. He said any changes to the Bill of Rights have to apply statewide, not just in Baltimore.

"We will hear testimony on any proposal put forward," he said. "We will give full weight and consideration to them."

mpuente@baltsun.com

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